Social Security Judges Must Take All of a Claimant's Limitations into Account - March v. Commissioner of Social Security

December 30,2008
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In March v. Commissioner of Social Security, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal explains that, in determining whether a disability benefits claimant retains the ability to perform work, a judge must take into account all of the Plaintiff’s physical and mental limitations.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff Vickie March’s initial claim for Social Security disability benefits, in which March had claimed that she’s unable to work due to various physical and mental impairments. March appealed the decision and, following a hearing before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), the judge also found that she was not disabled. Specifically, the ALJ determined that March retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) – the ability to perform basic functions necessary for work related activities despite any impairments – to perform certain jobs available in the national economy.
Upon exhaustion of her administrative appeal rights, March appealed the aDministration’s decision in Federal Court. At that point, Ninth Circuit found that the ALJ’s RFC determination was flawed because it “did not adequately account for certain limitations.” Although the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s impairments caused “moderate difficulties maintaining concentration, persistence or pace and a reduced capacity to concentrate owing to pain and stress,” he failed to take these limitations into account when determining Plaintiff’s RFC.
Similarly, the ALJ noted that a physician’s report finding that Plaintiff’s physical impairments caused “restrictions on bending, twisting and repetitive upper extremity hand controls,” but the ALJ did not account for these limitations in determining Plaintiff’s RFC. According to the court, the ALJ was not required to discuss every piece of evidence presented in developing the record, but nevertheless was obligated to explain his rejection of significant probative evidence, such as the physician’s report. As a result, the court remanded the case for further proceedings.
In reaching its decision, the court also made two important points that Social Security disability claimants should keep in mind in gathering the evidence necessary to support a claim. First, the court found that the ALJ properly discredited testimony by Plaintiff and a neighbor regarding the severity of her symptoms because this testimony conflicted with both evidence that Plaintiff provided about her daily activities and various doctors’ reports. Second, the court ruled that the ALJ also properly rejected a treating physician’s opinion – even though such an opinion is ordinarily entitled to great weight – because it was contained in a “conclusory check-the-box questionnaire [that] described no bases for his diagnoses…” In so doing, the court held that a physician’s opinion must be supported by clinical findings in order to be sufficient to support a claim.

As this case makes clear, the Social Security disability claim process can be a long and complicated affair, often involving numerous reviews and appeals. It is important that a claimant provide the SSA and reviewing judges with clear and convincing evidence that not only proves that he or she is unable to work for a year or more due to disability, but that does not contradict other evidence in the record. An experienced disability lawyer can assist a claimant in the process by gathering the necessary evidence, filing a claim on the client’s behalf, following up with the SSA to ensure that it has the information and documentation it needs and representing the client at hearing, if necessary.